My daughter and I visited the USMHM last week; this was my second visit and her first. We both moved quietly through the three main floors of the permanent exhibit at our own pace, overwhelmed by the cruelty documented, the massive loss of life, and the obvious bravery of so many people.
Displays at the USMHM include photographs, video loops, voice recordings, and letters to name a few. Short films are included on each floor as well. Video loops including graphic footage such as medical experimentation on Jews or executions are placed behind barriers so people have the option to watch or not. There is a room filled with thousands of shoes collected from Jewish people after they were gassed. Another display shows large bags filled with hair shaved from the heads of Jewish prisoners to be sold and used to make fabric and textile products.
The permanent exhibition at the USMHM occupies the top three floors of the museum. Visitors are given identification cards as they enter industrial elevators that take them to the fourth floor. Each ID card tells the story of a victim or survivor of the holocaust.
The fourth floor focuses on the Nazi rise to power (1933-1939) and explores how such efficient and organized mass murder could have happened.
Visitors then move to the third floor which is centered on Germany’s evolutionary shift from persecuting Jews to mass murder, or what they called the “Final Solution.” Concentration camps, ghettos, dehumanizing treatment, forced labor as well as a look at the various groups persecuted by the Nazis are all topics explored on this level which encompasses the years 1940-1945.
Moving down to the second floor, visitors learn about the liberation of concentration camps by Allied forces, the aftermath of the Holocaust and resistance/rescue efforts that were made. The topic of bystanders is addressed here, too. Testimony is one of two films shown on this floor, and in it, survivors and rescuers share their stories.
Remember the Children, Daniel’s Story is an exhibit located on the first floor. It is geared towards elementary and middle school students and is intended to explain the Holocaust to children.
Two new things I learned about on my trip to the USMHM:
- I learned why the U.S. didn’t bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz (1944-1945) despite being begged to by Jewish leaders in America. Up to 10,000 people were being killed a day in Auschwitz gas chambers alone and it seems like bombing them would have been effective in reducing the number of deaths. The War Department responded to these requests by saying they weren’t in the business of rescue missions. They didn’t want to divert any resources away from war efforts and felt that a swift end to the war would be the most effect solution.
The MS St. Louis was a German ship carrying 937 German Jewish refugees hoping to escape Nazi persecution in 1939. They first arrived in Cuba where they were denied entry, though passengers did have visas. Next they went Florida where they were denied entry as well. Coast Guard cutters escorted them along the U.S. coast to ensure that they did not enter illegally as the ship made its way toward Canada. Two days before arriving at Nova Scotia, Canada, they were denied entry there as well. Eventually they made their way back to Europe where the captain, a non Jewish German, refused to return the ship to Germany until all passengers had been promised entry to some other country. The UK took 288, France allowed 224 passengers in, Belgium accepted 214 and 181 were accepted by the Netherlands. It is estimated that over one quarter of these passengers died in concentration camps.
Planning your visit:
- Free passes are required for the permanent exhibit from March-August. They have times printed on them which helps regulate the flow of traffic. You can get your pass at the museum or ahead of time.
- The permanent exhibit is recommended for ages 11 and up. You really shouldn’t bring small children here as it is a very solemn environment.
- Plan on going through a metal detector. The USMHM has been the target of a planned attack and a fatal shooting so security is tight.
- The museum is open everyday except Yom Kippur and Christmas Day.
- Plan on staying for at least 2-3 hours.
- Before you go, try to read Night by Elie Wiesel. This memoir tells of his and his father’s experiences inside Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. What makes this book exceptionally powerful is that Wiesel recounts not only what he saw, but how it made him feel.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I’m condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
-Elie Wiesel, Night